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The “Appearance” of Evil
Mistranslation in 1 Thessalonians 5:22

Hans Deventer and Dennis R. Bratcher

Most Protestants, especially those in the evangelical traditions, place great value on Scripture as the basis for developing theology or taking ethical stands. For them, Scripture is important in providing guidelines for how to live in the world as God’s people. However, with this emphasis on Scripture also comes the responsibility of careful attention to issues of interpretation. It is all too easy to slip into the comfortable but irresponsible habit of using Scripture to support ideas or positions that are personal opinions, social mores, or the practices of a particular culture at a certain time and place in history.

Sometimes this occurs simply by ignoring any interpretation except that which produces a desired result. Sometimes, however, it is the result of misunderstanding the biblical text, from faulty translation, or from not knowing enough about the biblical text, either in terms of word meanings, the historical or cultural background of the text, or the larger context in which a passage is set. This emphasizes the need for careful and thoughtful attention to those features of any biblical text before using that text as the basis for doctrine or ethical positions, or in developing personal applications of a passage.

One simple example of how faulty translation, combined with uncritical use of that translation within a certain cultural and historical context, can lead to serious misapplication of a passage of Scripture can be seen in 1 Thessalonians 5:22.

(transliteration: apo pantos eidous pon�rou apechesthe)

In the NRSV, the verse is translated: "abstain from every form of evil." A literal translation of the Greek might be: "from every form of evil be abstaining."

However, in the KJV, the translation most widely used in the English-speaking world until the mid 20th-century, the verse is translated: "abstain from every appearance of evil."

The differences in translation center around the meaning of the Greek term eidouV (eidous; root form eidoV, eidos). This word only occurs five times in the Greek New Testament, although it is a frequent term in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), occurring there 58 times. According to Thayer (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon), as well as Bauer, Ardt, and Gingrich (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament), this term has two main meanings:

1) the external or outward appearance, form, figure, shape. It occurs with this meaning in Luke 3:22 ("in bodily form"), 9:29 ("the appearance of his face"), and John 5:37 ("you have never heard his voice or seen his form"). Similarly, it can also mean sight or seeing, as in 2 Corinthians 5:7 ("we walk by faith, not by sight").

2) form, kind. This is not the usual meaning of the term in most of the Septuagint. However, it does occur with this meaning in classical Greek, as well as in some of the apocryphal writings (for example, Sirach 23:16: "two kinds of individuals multiply sins, and a third incurs wrath . . ."). Bauer lists this meaning for 1 Thessalonians 5:22: "from every kind of evil."

It is easy to see why the KJV translators, and many of the older translations into Dutch, English, French and German, used a term equivalent to "appearance" to translate eidouV since that was the most common meaning in most of the biblical texts. However, as anyone who works with languages knows, the most used meaning of any term in a language does not dictate that it must always mean that. In most languages, it is immediate context and particular usage that determines meaning, not frequency or even lexical definitions. The Greek lexicons all recognize this diversity of meaning, which is why they often give only one example of a definition.

In such cases, it is often the immediate context as well as the larger flow of thought in a passage that provide clues to the particular functional meaning of a term. While it is often difficult to determine the meaning precisely, which is why there is variation in translations, careful consideration of context will most often provide parameters for translation.

This verse occurs in the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Church at Thessalonica. Paul has already concluded his teachings about the Second Coming that had concerned the church, and is now drawing the writing to a close with both final exhortations (5:12-22) and a concluding blessing (5:23-24) before the salutations (5:25-28).

5:12 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 5:13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 5:14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 5:15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 5:16 Rejoice always, 5:17 pray without ceasing, 5:18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 5:19 Do not quench the Spirit. 5:20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 5:21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 5:22 abstain from every form of evil.

In these final exhortations, there is clearly a call both to avoid that which is "evil" and to do that which is "good." Both of these are set within the context of interpersonal relationships (cf. 4:9-12), especially among those who have leadership responsibilities in the church ("those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you" and "prophets"). The concern is "peace among yourselves."

But there is also concern for the integrity of the community that would require patience in dealing both with problems ("idlers") as well as people with normal human struggles ("faint hearted," "weak"). Patience is here connected with not responding in kind to people who do "evil" as well as seeking "to do good" to everyone in all circumstances (v. 15). It is this contrast between avoiding acting in evil ways and doing the good that provides the semantic context here. It is in this atmosphere of always seeking to do good for all that the call to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances" expresses the "will of God in Christ Jesus" for the Thessalonians.

The final exhortations connect "hold fast to that which is good" with the appeals "do not quench the Spirit" and "do not despise the words of prophets." Again, the emphasis falls on actions that are a response of Christian living in a context that presents opportunities both to "repay evil for evil" and to "do the good." It is here that the contrast to "hold fast to what is good" is expressed as "abstain from every [form] of evil." In the context of this passage, "evil" has not been presented as some abstraction that could be characterized as "the appearance of evil." Within the larger context of the letter, evil has been given very concrete expression, as the command "abstain from fornication" (4:3; porneias, porneias, illicit sexual activity). There "abstain" is the same term in Greek that is used here in 5:22.

The appeal to the Thessalonians is not to avoid or abstain from that which might appear to be evil, but to avoid those things that are clearly evil, such as illicit sexual activity or responding to evil actions with evil action in return. In every case, those things are contrasted with the proper Christian response, purity or "holiness" (4:7) and doing "that which is good." This suggests that the translation "abstain from every kind of evil" is far preferable to "abstain from every appearance of evil." Paul calls the Thessalonians to a holy lifestyle that would avoid things that were clearly evil, like illicit sexual activity or responding to people with a retaliatory "evil for evil." In contrast, he also calls them to love one another, to be patient with each others, and to do the things that are good as God’s will for them as his "set-apart" people.

None of this suggests the older translation, that Christians should "avoid the appearance of evil" as if we were building a fence around the New Testament commandments like the Jews did with the Talmud. That would result, as it did in some strands of Judaism, in multiplying rules and commandments to infinite numbers in order to define precisely what "appearance" might mean in any particular situation. That would be a solid basis for the worst aspects of legalism.

The older translation "appearance" in 1 Thessalonians 5:22 led to unfortunate applications in some modern contexts. For example, the American holiness movement of the nineteenth century was concerned about holiness in everyday living, which led to an emphasis on personal ethics. That was a perfectly acceptable consequence of "holiness of heart and life," which was the hallmark of the Wesleyan revivals and emphasis on practical living.

Yet, in some quarters it moved into excessive legalism. In some contexts, this verse was used as a standard by which to judge the actions of others, as well as to set personal ethics in terms of external appearance or personal opinion. The idea was that if something could in some way be associated with something else that was evil, then that thing or action itself was evil because it had the appearance of evil. It was evil by association!

In many cases there was total sincerity on the part of those who applied the test of the "the appearance of evil." There was genuine concern for living a holy life and for avoiding even the appearance of participating in something that was evil, or that could be seen by others as evil. But misunderstanding biblical guidelines can lead to very negative results.  In all too many cases, this led to a judgmental spirit toward others. It also led to a sense of insecurity and fear on the part of Christians who were constantly worried about whether their actions could be perceived by others as "evil" or sinful.

In this sense, "the appearance of evil" talks about evil that has not happened or is not really evil at all but only seems evil in someone’s eyes! It feeds suspicion. It feeds all the darkness inside us that loves to judge people. It accuses brothers and sisters in the Lord that have done nothing wrong but create an appearance of evil in someone else's eyes! It destroys fellowship and trust. It fosters gossip and talking behind someone's back. It serves to create discord in community and undermines the love that should mark Christians fellowship, the very things that Paul was trying to avoid in his exhortations in 1 Thessalonians!

Given the fact that Jesus Himself spent time with tax-collectors and prostitutes, He would not have passed the test of the appearance of evil! In fact, the self-righteous Pharisees of his day took him to task at this very point. They constantly accused him of "guilt by association," that he was sinning because the associated with sinners and did not take pains to avoid the appearance of impropriety by avoiding sinners and disreputable places and events. Yet Jesus certainly passed the test of avoiding "every kind of evil," at the same time that he met sinners in their own world in order to call them to transformation.

At this point, we probably need to heed the words of the Lord and take them more seriously than has been done:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. (Matt 7:1-5)

I, for one, have been one of those that are quick to judge. In recent years, I am learning there is a lot of truth in Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 4:5

Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

I am learning that I am usually judging from the outside, by that which is apparent to all. Judging hearts seems a little more difficult (1 Sam 16:7):

. . . for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

Perhaps Paul's words in Romans 14:17-18 are the best conclusion:

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.

If anyone has strong convictions regarding eating or drinking, or other ethical convictions, follow your conscience! As Paul says, "Let all be fully convinced in their own minds" (Rom 14:3). But we should never forget that eating or drinking or other personal convictions, no matter how valid they might be, do not define the kingdom of God.

-Hans Deventer and Dennis R. Bratcher
Copyright © 2016, Dennis R. Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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